Connect with us

Middle East

GCC-US summit: Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia

Published

on

President Obama’s recent visit to Riyadh to meet Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) leaders was aimed at allaying fears in Saudi Arabia and its neighbors that Washington’s commitment to their security had diminished.

The president hoped to use his fourth and probably final trip to the kingdom to dispel some of the frustration felt by Gulf countries toward his administration, in what one senior US official said was a chance to “clear the air”. USA reaffirmed the policy to use all elements to secure the core interests in the Gulf region. However, his visit has not achieved its stated objective.

Obama acknowledged the strains that have afflicted ties between Washington and its Gulf partners, even as they have worked together on shared concerns such as the wars in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. They fear, may be without proof, Russia is creating misunderstanding between USA and Arab nations.

GCC-US summit in Riyadh

As USA continues to manage the show in the Mideast region by claiming to be their permanent ally, US President Barack Obama attended a Saudi sponsored second US- Gulf Cooperation Council summit on April 21in Riyadh that comprises Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Qatar, Bahrain, the United Arab Emirates and Oman. On the previous day (20th April), Barack Obama met Saudi Arabia’s King Salman to seek joint action on security threats including Iran and Islamic State group but nothing worked for Washington.

The US-GCC summit took place amid terror wars in Middle East with shifting political and economic scenes and it comes at a time when the views of the United States and the Gulf Cooperation Council on regional politics are drastically different. GCC – US summit began as the multilateral war in Syria enters its fifth year with massive humanitarian, political and economic ramifications. The visit for the summit comes against the backdrop of increasingly strained US relations with the Saudis, who remain deeply opposed to his outreach to Iran and skeptical of his approach to Syria.

According to the GCC spokesperson, the main issue on the summit’s agenda was the Iranian interventions in Middle East regional politics. Also high on the agenda, according to a White House official, is the usual terrorism and the fight against Islamic State group and other military/intelligence sharing issues. The USA is more concerned with the persistent GCC-Iran rivalry and the burden it places on the USA to “settle scores” once it gets out of capacity.

Last May, Obama hosted the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council for a rare summit at the Camp David presidential retreat. He pledged then that the US would cooperate with them to address what he called Iran’s “destabilizing activities in the region”. American call for coexistence, after violence and aggression has taken precedence, can now prove elusive. This is easily demonstrated after the bitter and costly confrontations in the region.

King Salman, speaking through a translator, offered similarly gracious words for the president, who is paying his fourth trip here for face-to-face meetings and photos with royal rulers since becoming president. The president was slated to spend little more than 24 hours in the Saudi capital before heading on to visits to London and Hannover, Germany.

As Arab nations are unhappy with the continued pro-Israeli policy of US presidents and the new US policy for Iran, US President Barack Obama failed to convince the leaders of the six Gulf Cooperation Council member states, during their April 22 summit in Riyadh, to support his Middle East policy and cooperate with Washington.

Since the war in Syria began in 2011, Obama has promised countless times that Washington would train and arm Syrian rebel forces outside the country, and then deploy them in Syria in order to strengthen rebel forces. However, it has not done so except for one instance in 2015. All of Washington’s efforts to recruit and train Syrian fighters, which have cost close to $1 billion, have failed. The US infiltrated a small force consisting of no more than several dozen fighters, but it was destroyed by the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda, shortly after it crossed the border. The terrorist group had apparently been tipped off about the arrival of the pro-American force.

Interestingly, Saudi Arabia’s King Salman lauded the summit as “constructive and fruitful”, according to the Saudi Press Agency, and pledged the “desire and commitment” of GCC countries to continue developing their ties with the United States. Footage and photographs aired on state media showed the leaders at a large circular table under a chandelier, with Obama sitting with King Salman on his left and the Abu Dhabi crown prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed al-Nahayan on his right.

His Majesty King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa of Bahrain said that the GCC-US Summit in Saudi capital, Riyadh, clearly reflects outstanding relations between the GCC countries and the USA and underlines success of dialogue as an approach and continuous consultation regarding various issues. He stressed that the prospective summit is part of the unrelenting efforts of the GCC countries to boost regional welfare through coordination with friendly countries and influential powers, including mainly the USA. He noted that the GCC countries have drawn a well-defined framework for cooperation with the rest of the world based on transparency, credibility and decisiveness in working out solutions and tackling threats, emphasizing the importance of constructive global cooperation to overcome challenges and achieve permanent security and stability.

The summit in Riyadh, Obama’s final meeting with GCC leaders before he leaves the White House next January, ended without a single agreement.

US policy and regional instability

Middle East as well as West Asia has been the most volatile region on earth, owing mainly US determination to sustain Israeli dominance in the region by upgrading its military-terror equipment with fresh supplies all the time.

The Sunni Muslim-ruled Arabia kingdom, the world’s biggest oil exporter and the largest buyer of American-made weapons, sees Shiite-led Iran as its main rival. Saudi leaders are concerned that concessions granted to Iran in last year’s nuclear deal will embolden it to pursue what the Saudis view as aggressive meddling throughout the region. Salman’s reign has overseen a more assertive foreign policy, with Saudis venturing into Yemen and pushing the US to take more aggressive moves to overthrow Syrian President Bashar Assad.

Saudi kingdom is opposed to Iran. On April 19, several hours before Obama’s departure for Riyadh, Iran carried out its latest act of defiance by attempting to launch a satellite into orbit using one of its “Simorgh” intercontinental ballistic missiles. The missile failed to leave the Earth’s atmosphere, fell to earth and crashed along with the satellite. Obama turned down the Gulf leaders on new sanctions as well.

A couple of weeks ago, top oil producers failed to reach consensus on a freeze of oil production; reflecting the growing tension between Saudi Arabia and Iran. Tehran aims to increase production to compensate for its long years under sanctions.

The domestic economic scene in Mideast is another aspect that should not be neglected. While economic leverage was presumed to be the cushion that prevented social unrest in the GCC region, economic cuts as a result of the low oil prices are beginning to impact societies.

The situation across the region is hardly different. A new revolution is fermenting in Egypt. Lebanon recently lost a promised $4bn Saudi military aid for not backing GCC side against Iran. Officials in Lebanon did not endorse an Arab League public condemnation of Hezbollah, an Iranian-backed Lebanese armed militia. In Yemen, a Saudi-led GCC coalition war has entered its second year without a foreseeable resolution. Houthi rebels refused to attend a recent UN-backed negotiation in Kuwait for failure of “the other party to commit to a ceasefire”. The situation in Yemen is rapidly approaching the Syrian multilateral war scene. The Yemeni negotiations are also obstructed by the Houthis’ demand to replace Abd-Rabbu Mansour Hadi as a president and by Yemen’s southern secessionist movement demand for immediate secession. A recent manifestation took place in Kuwait where oil workers began a strike over public sector pay reforms. There are growing fears that the strike might extend to neighboring GCC countries, particularly in light of recent economic measures.

Deeply worried about US stand on Iran, Saudi Arabia recently established a bloc and with Turkey along with Egypt and Jordan to oppose Obama’s Middle East policy, started to infiltrate a force of 3,500 rebels back into Syria. The force has been trained and financed by the Saudis at special camps in Turkey and Jordan. Members of the force are now fighting alongside other rebels north of Aleppo, but they are being bombed heavily by the Russian and Syrian air forces.

Saudi Arabia is annoyed that USA in Syria looks other way. In fact, Riyadh sent the rebels into Syria to demonstrate to Obama that the Saudi royal family opposes the policy of diplomatic and military cooperation between the US and Russia regarding Syria that enables President Bashar Assad to remain in power in Damascus.

Saudi Arabia, with Turkey’s help, and the US carried out separate military operations several hours before the start of the summit that showed the extent of their differences. The US last week started to use its giant B-52 bombers against ISIS in an attempt to show Gulf leaders that it is determined to quash the terrorist organization’s threat to Gulf States. The bombers deployed at Qatar’s Al Udeid airbase attacked targets around Mosul in northern Iraq, but the targets were not identified.

In anticipation of Obama’s second visit to Saudi kingdom, a group of human rights advocated have written an open letter to urge the president to pressure GCC leaders for political and civil reforms. Last year, the US-GCC summit received similar appeals. Understandably, it is hard to conceptualize the link between more freedom and civil rights in GCC and regional stability, as there are many variables involved in fostering and enabling regional violence. It is, therefore, expected that any strategies aimed at achieving regional stability and economic reforms will need to apply measures of meaningful political reforms, but keeping Islamic system intact, not only to drive regional stability but also to reduce the effect of replicating the NATO violent ideology in Mideast, fuelling the regional conflicts. It is not a question of luxury but of necessity to press for a space for a discourse of moderation and modernisation, without in any way opposing Islamic values, where the price of freedom of expression, and that of regional stability, is not paid in life or liberty. Nothing should be negatively influencing Islamic faith.

Divergence and failed mission

Stepping off of Air Force One earlier at King Khalid International Airport, Obama was greeted on a red carpet not by King Salman but by Prince Faisal bin Bandar bin Abdulaziz Al Saud, the governor of Riyadh. Before Obama landed, Saudi state television did not immediately air Obama’s arrival, but showed the king greeting other senior officials from Gulf nations arriving for the summit.

Under crystal chandeliers, the Saudi monarch greeted Obama in a grand foyer at Erga Palace, where the two walked slowly to a reception room as the smell of incense wafted. The two offered polite smiles as they sat down side by side for camera pictures at the start of their private meeting. “The American people send their greetings and we are very grateful for your hospitality, not just for this meeting but for hosting the GCC-US summit that’s taking place tomorrow,” Obama said, referring to the six-nation Gulf Cooperation Council summit.

The White House said would focus on regional stability, counterterrorism including the fight against the Islamic State and al-Qaida, and Iran. Talks addressed the Saudi-led military campaign against Shiite rebels and their allies in neighboring Yemen. US officials have expressed hope the latest meeting will build on last year’s Camp David summit, though they acknowledge differences remain between the US and Saudi Arabia. It was hoped the summit would come up with results that would help handle the grave regional and international challenges, boost regional peace and security and achieve aspirations for more welfare by adhering to clear-cut principles, including mainly mutual respect, no interference in countries’ internal affairs and respect of international laws.

The leaders of the six GCC member states put their previous differences aside and presented President Obama with four requests aimed at building a new joint policy regarding the region, namely, Action by Washington to strengthen the Sunni majority in Iraq and facilitate representation of the Sunnis in the central government in Baghdad. The Gulf rulers told Obama that his policy of trying to win the support of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi is mistaken. Obama rejected the request and said he refuses to change his Iraq policy.

Further, the GCC sought imposition of new US sanctions on Iran over its continuing ballistic missile tests and provision of US-made F-35 fighter-bombers to Saudi Arabia and the UAE so they can take action against the Iranian missile threat. GCC also wants USA ti abandon Washington’s cooperation with Russia and the UN for political solution in Syria, and instead cooperate with Gulf States and Turkey to end the war and depose President Bashar Assad. The US president declined all the requests and refused to oblige Arab nations.

Observation

The Middle East is mired in a contest for influence between a bloc of mostly Sunni countries, including the conservative, pro-Western Gulf monarchies, and revolutionary Shi’ite Iran and its allies. Most of the GCC states have been bitterly disappointed in Obama’s presidency, during which they believe the USA has pulled back from the region, giving more space to Iran. They were also upset by Obama’s remarks in a magazine interview that appeared to cast them as “free-riders” in US security efforts and urged them to “share” the region with Tehran. This obviously has upset the Arab leaders.

Obama’s failed trip to Saudi Arabia amid tension with Arab nations over Israel and Iran would put the bilateral ties under further strains. Saudi Arabia has clearly offered Obama to choose between GCC and Iran. However, as the global super power with veto facility, Washington cannot take a firm decision on the matter as it advances national interest globally.

Recent expressions of frustration by Obama revealed some of the contentious differences on key issues. President Barack Obama pledged to “deter aggression” against Gulf Arab allies increasingly concerned about Iran’s influence in the region but did not shy away from raising sensitive issues in talks aimed at addressing recent strains in US-Gulf ties. Washington says the USA remains deeply enmeshed in Gulf security, cooperating closely with the monarchies to strengthen their armed forces and share intelligence aimed at countering Islamist militant groups. Obama said the USA shares the Gulf countries’ concerns about what he called destabilizing activities by Iran, which agreed with major powers in July 2015 to curb its nuclear program in return for the lifting of some sanctions.

The American president has said he wants Gulf allies to offer more democratic reforms and improve human rights, and he discussed that with King Salman. Obama also raised the issue of sectarianism, for which he has chided Gulf states in the past on grounds it fuels militancy, saying “the prosperity and stability of the region depends on countries treating all their citizens fairly and … sectarianism is an enemy of peace and prosperity”. Adding to tensions is a bill proposed in US Congress to lift Riyadh’s immunity if any Saudi officials are found to have been involved in the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks. Obama has said he opposes the bill because it could lead to cases directed against the United States in foreign courts.

Saudi Arabia led Arab nations have a vital role to play in Islamic world to consciously promote Islamic faith and Islamic values. Although this role could also be played by Turkey and Iran, central role Arab leadership should play in this cannot be belittled. After all, Islam was born in Saudi Arabia. True, today there is an apparent shift in Arab thinking to equate Islam with capitalism as crony capitalism has spread in Arab world as fast as in Israel and western world. Arab governments very seriously promote corporatism as the next level of capitalism and now, unfortunately, linking the capitalist trend even with ugly and dirty imperialism. Saudi led GCC nations are also fighting wars in Mideast.

As Arab nations are trying to bring Islam closer to western capitalism, they also look for active support of the western powers for their promotion of capitalism and support for imperialism.

Arab world is suspicious of US intentions in the region. Of course, USA possesses ample number of tools to keep the Arab nations under its strict control, despite the differences in their relations over Iran and Israel. After all USA is reining superpower – considered as the formidable threat even by equally strong power Russia in all spheres – and Saudi Arabia is not.

Saudi Arabia is not even a veto power. Obama visit to Riyadh clearly reveals the serious nature of crisis in bilateral relations, not withstanding increasing mutual trade in oil and arms.

Continue Reading
Comments

Middle East

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman’s heady days

Published

on

These are heady days for Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman.

With King Salman home after a week in hospital during which he had a colonoscopy, rumours are rife that succession in the kingdom may not be far off.

Speculation is not limited to a possible succession. Media reports suggest that US President Joe Biden may visit Saudi Arabia next month for a first meeting with the crown prince.

Mr. Biden called Saudi Arabia a pariah state during his presidential election campaign. He has since effectively boycotted Mr. Bin Salman because of the crown prince’s alleged involvement in the 2018 killing of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul.

Mr. Bin Salman has denied any involvement but said he accepted responsibility for the killing as Saudi Arabia’s de facto ruler.

Mr. Bin Salman waited for his 86-year-old father to return from the hospital before travelling to Abu Dhabi to offer his condolences for the death of United Arab Emirates President Khaled bin Zayed and congratulations to his successor, Mohamed bin Zayed, the crown prince’s one-time mentor.

Mr. Bin Salman used the composition of his delegation to underline his grip on Saudi Arabia’s ruling family. In doing so, he was messaging the international community at large, and particularly Mr. Biden, that he is in control of the kingdom no matter what happens.

The delegation was made up of representatives of different branches of the ruling Al Saud family, including Prince Abdulaziz bin Ahmed, the eldest son of Prince Ahmed bin Abdulaziz, the detained brother of King Salman.

Even though he holds no official post, Mr. Abdulaziz’s name topped the Saudi state media’s list of delegates accompanying Mr. Bin Salman.

His father, Mr. Ahmed, was one of three members of the Allegiance Council not to support Mr. Bin Salman’s appointment as crown prince in 2017. The 34-member Council, populated by parts of the Al-Saud family, was established by King Abdullah in 2009 to determine succession to the throne in Saudi Arabia.

Mr. Bin Salman has detained Mr. Ahmed as well as Prince Mohamed Bin Nayef, the two men he considers his foremost rivals, partly because they are popular among US officials.

Mr. Ahmed was detained in 2020 but never charged, while Mr. Bin Nayef stands accused of corruption. Mr. Ahmed returned to the kingdomn in 2018 from London, where he told protesters against the war in Yemen to address those responsible, the king and the crown prince.

Mr. Abdulaziz’s inclusion in the Abu Dhabi delegation fits a pattern of Mr. Bin Salman appointing to office younger relatives of people detained since his rise in 2015. Many were arrested in a mass anti-corruption campaign that often seemed to camouflage a power grab that replaced consultative government among members of the ruling family with one-man rule.

Mr. Bin Salman likely takes pleasure in driving the point home as Mr. Biden mulls a pilgrimage to Riyadh to persuade the crown prince to drop his opposition to increasing the kingdom’s oil production and convince him that the United States remains committed to regional security.

The crown prince not only rejected US requests to help lower oil prices and assist Europe in reducing its dependency on Russian oil as part of the campaign to force Moscow to end its invasion of Ukraine but also refused to take a phone call from Mr. Biden.

Asked a month later whether Mr. Biden may have misunderstood him, Mr. Bin Salman told an interviewer: “Simply, I do not care.”

Striking a less belligerent tone, Mohammed Khalid Alyahya, a Hudson Institute visiting fellow and former editor-in-chief of Saudi-owned Al Arabiya English, noted this month that “Saudi Arabia laments what it sees as America’s wilful dismantling of an international order that it established and led for the better part of a century.”

Mr. Alyahya quoted a senior Saudi official as saying: “A strong, dependable America is the greatest friend Saudi Arabia can have. It stands to reason, then, that US weakness and confusion is a grave threat not just to America, but to us as well.”

The United States has signalled that it is shifting its focus away from the Middle East to Asia even though it has not rolled back its significant military presence.

Nonetheless, Middle Eastern states read a reduced US commitment to their security into a US failure to respond robustly to attacks by Iran and Iranian-backed Arab militias against targets in Saudi Arabia and the UAE and the Biden administration’s efforts to revive a moribund 2015 international nuclear agreement with Iran.

Several senior US officials, including National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan and CIA director Bill Burns, met with the crown prince during trips to the kingdom last year. Separately, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin called the crown prince.

In one instance, Mr. Bin Salman reportedly shouted at Mr. Sullivan after he raised Mr. Khashoggi’s killing. The crown prince was said to have told the US official that he never wanted to discuss the matter again and that the US could forget about its request to boost Saudi oil production.

Even so, leverage in the US-Saudi relationship goes both ways.

Mr. Biden may need Saudi Arabia’s oil to break Russia’s economic back. By the same token, Saudi Arabia, despite massive weapon acquisitions from the United States and Europe as well as arms from China that the United States is reluctant to sell, needs the US as its security guarantor.

Mr. Bin Salman knows that he has nowhere else to go. Russia has written itself out of the equation, and China is neither capable nor willing to step into the United States’ shoes any time soon.

Critics of Mr. Biden’s apparent willingness to bury the hatchet with Mr. Bin Salman argue that in the battle with Russia and China over a new 21st-century world order, the United States needs to talk the principled talk and walk the principled walk.

In an editorial, The Washington Post, for whom Mr. Khashoggi was a columnist, noted that “the contrast between professed US principles and US policy would be stark and undeniable” if Mr. Biden reengages with Saudi Arabia.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Saudi religious moderation: the world’s foremost publisher of Qur’ans has yet to get the message

Published

on

When the religious affairs minister of Guinea-Conakry visited Jeddah last week, his Saudi counterpart gifted him 50,000 Qur’ans.

Saudi Islamic affairs minister Abdullatif Bin Abdulaziz Al-Sheikh offered the holy books as part of his ministry’s efforts to print and distribute them and spread their teachings.

The Qur’ans were produced by the King Fahd Complex for the Printing of the Holy Qur’an, which annually distributes millions of copies. Scholar Nora Derbal asserts that the Qur’ans “perpetuate a distinct Wahhabi reading of the scripture.”

Similarly, Saudi Arabia distributed in Afghanistan in the last years of the US-backed government of President Ashraf Ghani thousands of Qur’ans produced by the printing complex, according to Mr. Ghani’s former education minister, Mirwais Balkhi. Mr. Balkhi indicated that the Qur’ans were identical to those distributed by the kingdom for decades.

Mr. Ghani and Mr. Balkhi fled Afghanistan last year as US troops withdrew from the country and the Taliban took over.

Human Rights Watch and Impact-se, an education-focused Israeli research group, reported last year that Saudi Arabia, pressured for some two decades post-9/11 by the United States and others to remove supremacist references to Jews, Christian, and Shiites in its schoolbooks, had recently made significant progress in doing so.

However, the two groups noted that Saudi Arabia had kept in place fundamental concepts of an ultra-conservative, anti-pluralistic, and intolerant interpretation of Islam.

The same appears true for the world’s largest printer and distributor of Qur’ans, the King Fahd Complex.

Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman has, since his rise in 2015, been primarily focussed on social and economic rather than religious reform.

Mr. Bin Salman significantly enhanced professional and personal opportunities for women, including lifting the ban on women’s driving and loosening gender segregation and enabled the emergence of a Western-style entertainment sector in the once austere kingdom.

Nevertheless, Saudi Islam scholar Besnik Sinani suggests that “state pressure on Salafism in Saudi Arabia will primarily focus on social aspects of Salafi teaching, while doctrinal aspects will probably receive less attention.”

The continued production and distribution of Qur’ans that included unaltered ultra-conservative interpretations sits uneasily with Mr. Bin Salman’s effort to emphasize nationalism rather than religion as the core of Saudi identity and project a more moderate and tolerant image of the kingdom’s Islam.

The Saudi spin is not in the Arabic text of the Qur’an that is identical irrespective of who prints it, but in parenthetical additions, primarily in translated versions, that modify the meaning of specific Qur’anic passages.

Commenting in 2005 on the King Fahd Complex’s English translation, the most widely disseminated Qur’an in the English-speaking world, the late Islam scholar Khaleel Mohammed asserted that it “reads more like a supremacist Muslim, anti-Semitic, anti-Christian polemic than a rendition of the Islamic scripture.”

Religion scholar Peter Mandaville noted in a recently published book on decades of Saudi export of ultra-conservative Islam that “it is the kingdom’s outsized role in the printing and distribution of the Qur’an as rendered in other languages that becomes relevant in the present context.”

Ms. Derbal, Mr. Sinani and this author contributed chapters to Mr. Mandaville’s edited volume.

The King Fahd Complex said that it had produced 18 million copies of its various publications in 2017/18 in multiple languages in its most recent production figures. Earlier it reported that it had printed and distributed 127 million copies of the Qur’an in the 22 years between 1985 and 2007. The Complex did not respond to emailed queries on whether parenthetical texts have been recently changed.

The apparent absence of revisions of parenthetical texts reinforces suggestions that Mr. Bin Salman is more concerned about socio-political considerations, regime survival, and the projection of the kingdom as countering extremism and jihadism than he is about reforming Saudi Islam.

It also spotlights the tension between the role Saudi Arabia envisions as the custodian of Islam’s holiest cities, Mecca and Medina, and the needs of a modern state that wants to attract foreign investment to help ween its economy off dependency on oil exports.

Finally, the continued distribution of Qur’ans with seemingly unaltered commentary speaks to the balance Mr. Bin Salman may still need to strike with the country’s once-powerful religious establishment despite subjugating the clergy to his will.

The continued global distribution of unaltered Qur’an commentary calls into question the sincerity of the Saudi moderation campaign, particularly when juxtaposed with rival efforts by other major Muslim countries to project themselves as beacons of a moderate form of Islam.

Last week, Saudi Arabia’s Muslim World League convened some 100 Christian, Jewish, Hindu, and Buddhist religious leaders to “establish a set of values common to all major world religions and a vision for enhancing understanding, cooperation, and solidarity amongst world religions.”

Once a major Saudi vehicle for the global propagation of Saudi religious ultra-conservatism, the League has been turned into Mr. Bin Salman’s megaphone. It issues lofty statements and organises high-profile conferences that project Saudi Arabia as a leader of moderation and an example of tolerance.

The League, under the leadership of former justice minister Mohammed al-Issa, has emphasised its outreach to Jewish leaders and communities. Mr. Al-Issa led a delegation of Muslim religious leaders in 2020 on a ground-breaking visit to Auschwitz, the notorious Nazi extermination camp in Poland.

However, there is little evidence, beyond Mr. Al-Issa’s gestures, statements, and engagement with Jewish leaders, that the League has joined in a practical way the fight against anti-Semitism that, like Islamophobia, is on the rise.

Similarly, Saudi moderation has not meant that the kingdom has lifted its ban on building non-Muslim houses of worship on its territory.

The Riyadh conference followed Nahdlatul Ulama’s footsteps, the world’s largest Muslim civil society movement with 90 million followers in the world’s largest Muslim majority country and most populous democracy. Nahdlatul Ulama leader Yahya Cholil Staquf spoke at the conference.

In recent years, the Indonesian group has forged alliances with Evangelical entities like the World Evangelical Alliance (WEA), Jewish organisations and religious leaders, and various Muslim groups across the globe. Nahdlatul Ulama sees the alliances as a way to establish common ground based on shared humanitarian values that would enable them to counter discrimination and religion-driven prejudice, bigotry, and violence.

Nahdlatul Ulama’s concept of Humanitarian Islam advocates reform of what it deems “obsolete” and “problematic” elements of Islamic law, including those that encourage segregation, discrimination, and/or violence towards anyone perceived to be a non-Muslim. It further accepts the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, unlike the Saudis, without reservations.

The unrestricted embrace of the UN declaration by Indonesia and its largest Muslim movement has meant that conversion, considered to be apostasy under Islamic law, is legal in the Southeast Asian nation. As a result, Indonesia, unlike Middle Eastern states where Christian communities have dwindled due to conflict, wars, and targeted attacks, has witnessed significant growth of its Christian communities.

Christians account for ten percent of Indonesia’s population. Researchers Duane Alexander Miller and Patrick Johnstone reported in 2015 that 6.5 million Indonesian had converted to Christianity since 1960.

That is not to say that Christians and other non-Muslim minorities have not endured attacks on churches, suicide bombings, and various forms of discrimination. The attacks have prompted Nahdlatul Ulama’s five million-strong militia to protect churches in vulnerable areas during holidays such as Christmas. The militia has also trained Christians to enable them to watch over their houses of worship.

Putting its money where its mouth is, a gathering of 20,000 Nahdlatul Ulama religious scholars issued in 2019 a fatwa or religious opinion eliminating the Muslim legal concept of the kafir or infidel.

Twelve years earlier, the group’s then spiritual leader and former Indonesian president Abdurahman Wahid, together with the Simon Wiesenthal Center in Los Angeles, organised a conference in the archipelago state to acknowledge the Holocaust and denounce denial of the Nazi genocide against the Jews. The meeting came on the heels of a gathering in Tehran convened by then Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad that denied the existence of the Holocaust.

Continue Reading

Middle East

Iran Gives Russia Two and a Half Cheers

Published

on

Photo: Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov meets with his Iranian counterpart Hossein Amir-Abdollahian in Moscow, March 15 2022. Credit: @Amirabdolahian via Twitter.

Iran’s rulers enthusiastically seek to destroy the liberal world order and therefore support Russia’s aggression. But they can’t manage full-throated support.

For Iran, the invasion of Ukraine is closely related to the very essence of the present world order. Much like Russia, Iran has been voicing its discontent at the way the international system has operated since the end of the Cold War. More broadly, Iran and Russia see the world through strikingly similar lenses. Both keenly anticipate the end of the multipolar world and the end of the West’s geopolitical preponderance.

Iran had its reasons to think this way. The US unipolar moment after 1991 provoked a deep fear of imminent encirclement, with American bases in Afghanistan and Iraq cited as evidence. Like Russia, the Islamic Republic views itself as a separate civilization that needs to be not only acknowledged by outside players, but also to be given ana suitable geopolitical space to project influence.

Both Russia and Iran are very clear about their respective spheres of influence. For Russia, it is the territories that once constituted the Soviet empire. For Iran, it is the contiguous states reaching from the Persian Gulf to the Mediterranean — Iraq, Syria, Lebanon — plus Yemen. When the two former imperial powers have overlapping strategic interests such as, for instance, in the South Caucasus and the Caspian Sea, they apply the concept of regionalism. This implies the blocking out of non-regional powers from exercising outsize economic and military influence, and mostly revolves around an order dominated by the powers which border on a region.

This largely explains why Iran sees the Russian invasion of Ukraine as an opportunity that, if successful, could hasten the end of the liberal world order. This is why it has largely toed the Russian line and explained what it describes as legitimate motives behind the invasion. Thus the expansion of NATO into eastern Europe was cited as having provoked Russian moves. “The root of the crisis in Ukraine is the US policies that create the crisis, and Ukraine is one victim of these policies,” argued Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei following the invasion.

To a certain degree, Iran’s approach to Ukraine has been also influenced by mishaps in bilateral relations which largely began with the accidental downing of a Ukrainian passenger jet by Iranian surface-to-air missiles in January 2020, killing 176 people. The regime first denied responsibility, and later blamed human error.

Iran, like several other of Russia’s friends and defenders,  the ideal scenario would have been a quick war in which the Kremlin achieved its major goals.

Protracted war, however, sends a bad signal. It signals that the liberal order was not in such steep decline after all, and that Russia’s calls for a new era in international relations have been far from realistic. The unsuccessful war also shows Iran that the collective West still has very significant power and — despite well-aired differences — an ability to rapidly coalesce to defend the existing rules-based order. Worse, for these countries, the sanctions imposed on Russia go further; demonstrating the West’s ability to make significant economic sacrifices to make its anger felt. In other words, Russia’s failure in Ukraine actually strengthened the West and made it more united than at any point since the September 2001 terrorist attacks on the US.

A reinvigorated liberal order is the last thing that Iran wants, given its own troubled relations with the collective West. The continuing negotiations on a revived nuclear deal will be heavily impacted by how Russia’s war proceeds, and how the US and EU continue to respond to the aggression. Iran fears that a defeated Russia might be so angered as to use its critical position to endanger the talks, vital to the lifting of the West’s crippling sanctions.

And despite rhetorical support for Russia, Iran has been careful not to overestimate Russia’s power. It is now far from clear that the Kremlin has achieved its long-term goal of “safeguarding” its western frontier. Indeed, the Putin regime may have done the opposite now that it has driven Finland and Sweden into the NATO fold. Western sanctions on Russia are likely to remain for a long time, threatening long-term Russian economic (and possible regime) stability.

Moreover, Russia’s fostering of separatist entities (following the recognition of the so called Luhansk and Donetsk “people’s republics” and other breakaway entities in Georgia and Moldova) is a highly polarizing subject in Iran. True there has been a shift toward embracing Russia’s position over Ukraine, but Iran remains deeply committed to the “Westphalian principles” of non-intervention in the affairs of other states and territorial integrity. This is hardly surprising given its own struggles against potential separatism in the peripheries of the country.

Many Iranians also sympathize with Ukraine’s plight, which for some evokes Iran’s defeats in the early 19th century wars when Qajars had to cede the eastern part of the South Caucasus to Russia. This forms part of a historically deeply rooted, anti-imperialist sentiment in Iran.

Iran is therefore likely to largely abstain from endorsing Russia’s separatist ambitions in Eastern Ukraine. It will also eschew, where possible, support for Russia in international forums. Emblematic of this policy was the March 2 meeting in the United Nations General Assembly when Iran, rather than siding with Russia, abstained from the vote which condemned the invasion.

Russia’s poor military performance, and the West’s ability to act unanimously, serve as a warning for the Islamic Republic that it may one day have to soak up even more Western pressure if Europe, the US, and other democracies act in union.

In the meantime, like China, Iran will hope to benefit from the magnetic pull of the Ukraine war. With so much governmental, military and diplomatic attention demanded by the conflict, it will for the time being serve as a distraction from Iran’s ambitions elsewhere. 

Author’s note: first published in cepa

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

South Asia27 mins ago

“Haqeeqi Azaadi” or “Political Invasion”?

You call it a “Long March” or an “Azaadi March” or a “Haqeeqi Azaadi March” and lastly according to some...

Defense2 hours ago

What makes India’s participation in the Quad intrinsically unique?

In this essay, I try to shed light on the geopolitical imperatives that make India’s involvement in the Quad intrinsically...

Health & Wellness4 hours ago

Blind cave creatures light the way with DNA

In watery underground caverns, there are creatures that live in an eternal midnight. Over the course of generations, these animals...

World News6 hours ago

WEF calls for new partnerships to generate private capital for fragile communities

The World Economic Forum released today a paper that calls for new collaboration between humanitarian and development organizations, businesses, investors...

Tech News8 hours ago

Growing Intra-Africa Trade through Digital Transformation of Customs and Borders

The digital transformation of customs and borders in Africa could improve efficiencies in processes, such as administration at customs and...

Environment11 hours ago

More Industrial Hubs to Accelerate Their Net-Zero Transition

Four leading industrial clusters in the Netherlands, Belgium and the US today announced that they are working together with the...

Environment12 hours ago

Global Food Crisis Must Be Solved Alongside Climate Crisis

Instability in Ukraine is threatening to intensify an already precarious global food security outlook. Increasing prices of fertilizers and inaccessibility...

Trending